Bringing Art To Narwhal Research In The Arctic

Apr 9, 2013

Artists have accompanied scientists and explorers for hundreds of years - documenting discoveries of new species and uncharted territory.

Well, that tradition is still alive and well.

Ashley Ahearn interviewed two Seattleites on a scientific and artistic expedition to study Narwhals in Greenland, and produced this audio postcard.

An artist's sketchbook used in studying the landscape and nature in Greenland.
Credit Ashley Ahearn / EarthFix


   Laidre: My name is Kristin Laidre and I am a scientist at UW polar science center and my research is focused around marine mammals that live in the high arctic and right now I’m doing a project on narwhals in Greenland.

Coryell-Martin: My name is Maria Coryell-Martin and I’m an expeditionary artist which means I’ve been traveling around the world painting in primarily polar and glaciated regions to help document and explore these remote regions with scientists and share the stories of the environment and the science through art.

Coryell-Martin: So for Kristin’s research on the Narwhals we’re flying out 75+ nautical miles over the sea ice to land and look for the Narwhals and it’s this remarkable environment of sparkling light, ice leads, cracks in the ice, patterns of the ice and the space and the quiet, vast sky – and occasionally a Narwhal.

Laidre: On the ice you land and it’s just so silent. You can’t believe how silent it is. You stand there and it’s this beautiful silence and off in the distance you might hear the blow from a narwhal or the call of a raven out in the middle of the frozen sea and it’s a beautiful thing.

Coryell-Martin: So the first thing I do is, like the scientist is preparing my equipment so trying to travel really compact so I bring a small backpack with my basic field art supplies. The challenges we all face are having it being really cold. And minus 20 Celsius, strong wind, up to 30-40 knots. So there’s protecting the equipment and protecting ourselves. I think I have it a little easier because the electronics can be fussy and with my watercolors I typically just paint with vodka when I’m out there to lower the freezing temperature and then really dress up and insulate myself and I can sketch with mits.

Laidre: Narwhals they’re probably about 16 feet long. The males have a big tooth or tusk that comes out of their top, upper lift, and it’s a spiral tusk that’s about maybe 10 feet long. They're deep divers and when they’re in the ice they’re diving down to depths of over 4000 meters and feeding on flatfish that live in the bottom of Baffin bay, under the ice cover. We’re really just filling in the gaps about how these animals survive - What do they do in the ice? how do they find food? How do they communicate? - and then trying to piece that together to be able to make better predictions about the future in terms of how sea ice loss or ecosystem change will impact them.

Coryell-Martin: My goal as an artist is to help tell the story and illustrate the environment and in some ways too, help illustrate and share this place that is changing so quickly.

I think we imagine so much of the arctic as stark and inhospitable so telling the stories of the critters and creatures that do live here and thrive here is really important. It’s something that as an artist I’m doing my best to portray.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio